Imagine you are on a spaceship. You were born there. As you grew up, and went through puberty, you did what all kids do at that age: you had a party. The next morning you find out that there are no adults on the spaceship. At first this seems great: more partying! The climate control is pleasant, the food supply is abundant. With a bit of tweaking here and there you can get more of what you like most.
After a few years of this, things seem a bit off. The nerdy kids start complaining about their asthma, and measuring an increase in dust particles and CO2. At first, you think they’re just party poopers, but at some point all the nerdy kids agree that the climate control is out of whack. The data clearly shows that staying on this spaceship another year won’t be a pleasant experience.
You start analyzing what happened and come to the conclusion that the adults mysteriously abandoned ship, and there is nobody around that knows how to fix the climate control situation. What do you do? Well, you panic of course, and frantically try to help the nerds figure out how to save the day. The situation is dire: your food supply has been overloaded, and there has been too much partying. If you cut down the partying by at least 50% you should be fine.
Then something strange happens. Cutting down on partying seems like a good idea, but all subgroups on the ship agree internally that others should cut down their partying, and they should be left to do what they like. The atmosphere inside the ship takes a turn for the worse, both literally and figuratively speaking. A lot of meetings happen, but in the end the only thing successful about those meetings is the parties that happen afterwards.
Now imagine that timelines have shifted a bit. Instead of years, we’re talking generations. And imagine the ship is a bit bigger than your typical science fiction cruise liner. The earth is also a spaceship. It’s in an orbit around the sun. The climate control is barely understood by the humans partying on its surface. Scientists have been sounding the alarm since the previous generation. The situation is pretty much the same as the story above.
When you get in your car to work and stand there in traffic tomorrow, please consider this perspective. When you check into your next flight or hotel, please consider this perspective. When you order something online, please consider this perspective.
There’s another way
Back in 2013, I adopted the goal to cut my environmental footprint down to 1.0 earths. I finally reached that goal in 2018. I’ve done a lot of things to get to this point, but the most interesting thing has been founding Squads, a platform that connects remote teams with company and project owners.
Before becoming a remote worker myself, most of my environmental impact stemmed from traveling. As a software development consultant, I was driving well over 700 km/week and flying more than 20 hours per year. It is easy to estimate the emissions from vehicles when traveling. However, the indirect impact is much bigger.
This is because while you travel, or commute to the office:
your home is usually empty,
you buy food in smaller packages from less sustainable sources,
you have less time to have a positive impact on your local community.
A simple way to get comfortably to 1.0 is to work from home
In my training days I did all my work (except the trainings themselves) remotely. It was not so hard for me to get used to that. Finding well paid remote work was more of a challenge. To my initial surprise the majority of potential customers prefer to have people work in their office. This seemed strange to me, because it’s obviously more expensive to find local people and set up an office for them.
Even more surprising, I found that a significant portion of my fellow craftsmen actually prefer to commute over working from home.
In the five years we’ve been running Squads, I had plenty of opportunities to find out why people feel so uncomfortable with remote work. And even better, I’ve found ways to almost completely remove the discomfort.
I’ve written several articles about improving the way we work remotely. I will give you a short summary of those, with links. Then I’ll dive into some examples because they are more fun than instructions.
A word of advice on working remotely
To be awesome at remote work, you should invest in skills, tools, and habits. The most important skills are distributed retrospectives and remote pairing. The most important tools are a fabulous headset and a good connection. The most important habits are excellent work ethics and to give everything a url. So remember:
Combine these and you’ll be the best remote worker your customer has ever seen. Discipline is all you need. Now let’s look at those examples.
The big enterprise that couldn’t
Since the dawn of outsourcing, many people came to believe that outsourcing sucks. When following the wrong recipe, it does create some Kafkaesk situations that are entertaining to remember. I worked for a large company that moved all its software development to India (as many did back in the 00s). They had a long-term contract with an outsourcing company for hundreds of millions per year. The only certainty in such a setup is the cost of the operation. This is awesome for accountants, but miserable for everyone else. It’s the opposite of making your money work for you.
The outsourcing company had a fixed budget, to deliver a fixed amount of working hours. So they had incentives to hire as cheaply as possible, train as cheaply as possible, cut costs and deliver the lowest possible quality without breaching the contract.
Then, this customer hired consultants to fix things. I was lucky enough to be one of those consultants. Boy do I have some stories!
The remote working skills at the outsourcing company were not great. There was nothing in the contract about these skills, so all remote workers were basically untrained at remote work. On the receiving end, there was also no training. The local team members and managers couldn’t even comfortably speak a single language with their remote co-workers.
The tools were terrible. Large companies usually have all kinds of rules with regards to standardization, governance, and security. None of those rules were written with remote work in mind. At least not with making remote work easy. All they did was put up walls. VPN, remote desktops, blocked Skype ports, and an excruciatingly slow connection. This put me close to tears several times.
People that were hired were usually quite inexperienced, so they had not built the habits that are important in remote work. The setup of terrible tools and an environment of poor skills drove away the people with the best ethics and habits first. Everybody was paid by the hour. So the people that could spend the most hours in this environment without complaining would be most appreciated by their managers. In other words, people who were happy to just get paid would stay, people that wanted to get the job done would leave. In such an environment, after some time, most people will simply stop caring about the business success of their employer.
A learning system with bad feedback, typically evolves into a monster behaving badly. This enterprise was no exception. Once the monster was created, people started to dislike remote work. People started blaming each other, and became distracted from fixing the system itself. In the end, the organization invested a few hundred million again to move back to co-located and local work.
The little startup that could
Just after starting my remote freelancing career, a startup hired me to build a team out of freelancers. The founder was looking to follow the Tim Ferriss model, and decided to work without an office. Managing multiple remote freelancers as a business guy was far outside his comfort zone, so he asked me to help. After six weeks of learning, we had a team running that was doing really well. This guy had hired some really smart people, and it wasn’t hard for me to make a team out of them. The client gave me total freedom to organize the team, but he was paying all our bills separately. After optimizing away everything else, I found that the uncertain pay was our biggest remaining impediment. So we decided to create a model to help us fix this problem. We had learned that feedback plus iteration works.
We developed a model that consists of weekly iterations with reviews and team retrospectives. I had also learned that in order to get real feedback, you have to ask people to put their money where their mouth is. We decided to work only with upfront payments. To be fair to the customer, we agreed to refund the money if the customer was not happy at the end of the sprint. Our operation turned out somewhat like an escrow service. Without realizing it at the time, we had set up an early version of the Squads cash flow and feedback model. We quickly started using it for other customers too.
The reason this remote working setup worked has to do with skills, tools, and habits.
The team used a lot of pair programming, and everyone was showing up to the weekly retrospectives. This made it easier to learn from our mistakes and to align our efforts much better. Weekly reviews with the client also helped us gather feedback and process it quickly.
What did we do differently?
We had some advantages over the enterprise I mentioned before. First, we were all remote workers, either for the environment, or for less idealistic reasons. This is very different from working with employees from an outsourcing company working from a single office. All team members were experienced remote workers, and we invested in tools to help us work effectively. Occasionally, a team member would have a faulty headset, or a slow connection, but the other team members would sort that out with them during a retrospective.
The fact that the client didn’t like meetings helped us to put everything under a url. At some point, this became a rule in the team, which helped us avoid unnecessary synchronization. All documentation was in a wiki, we had an online issue tracker, and we used a shared git repository for version control. This is good practice even in a co-located team, but being forced to pass everything around in digital text messages made us much more disciplined in this. Shortly before Squads was founded, Ryan Tomayko published an article with a very insightful observation about “borrowing the natural constraints of open source software development when designing internal process and communication.” Even though the open source software development process and team setup seem extremely constrained, the results are often impressive.
Remote works for open source development, it can work for you too
Open source software development offers a good example of how teams can develop great products in a distributed setting. Virtually all open source software is developed asynchronously by fully distributed teams. The quality of open source software is often better than the quality of in-house software. Also the better developers seem more motivated to work on open source than on closed source. I think this is because the constraints of remote development better match certain basic human needs than the constraints of office work. There is a rather steep learning curve towards the state of a happy open source developer, but I can assure you from my own experience that this style of remote work beats office working hands down once you get there.
My thinking at the time was that it must be possible to get this kind of culture working also in closed source development. It seemed this should be easy. Saving the planet isn’t a great sales pitch somehow, but saving the bottom line usually is. Open source is made cheaper than closed source. And Github was being successful with it, so there was no reason our customers couldn’t be. It wasn’t so easy to convince them though. Why would they still say no to something that is so obviously superior both financially, physically, and environmentally?
After helping customers grow this kind of culture for multiple years, I’m more convinced than ever before that none of the arguments against remote work are blocking. There are some good arguments against remote work, and I think I’ve heard them all. There are also some very strong pro’s, and they clearly outweigh the cons in the long term. But here’s what I found on the whole: people are apprehensive about remote work because it is more risky in the short term, and may even be more expensive. With squads.com we mitigate those risks quite well, and we keep the costs in check. Still, short term things are not looking awesome for a company that wants to do 100% remote, or 100% in-office. Let’s look at some examples in a table.
As you can see, the remote setup wins long term, but the co-located setup wins short term. This kind of problem is a classic innovator’s dilemma. It makes room for disruptors to bankrupt established companies. I don’t think I’d gotten very far selling just the ideal of reducing carbon emissions. P&L usually gets a higher priority than the environment. And for a good reason: a bankrupt company can’t do anyone any good. Focusing on startups first to get the financial proof made a lot of sense.
Startups are less troubled by the short term advantages of co-location because they typically work with younger teams that are more apt at changing habits. But more importantly, when there is an established co-located organization, every new hire would be very cheap to co-locate, compared to ‘remoting’ the entire organization. Co-located training is not only cheaper, if you move to remote, you multiply the remote training costs with total team size. This is often a hurdle that established organizations cannot afford to jump.
It saddens me a bit that the obvious improvement that remote work is, is slowed down so much by the inertia of established habits. Many of us could fix our carbon footprint instantly if all creative work was remote, starting tomorrow. Global change is not for the impatient I guess. I do have hope for the future though.
There is no doubt in my mind that the co-location habit for brain work will eventually die out. It has a giant evolutionary disadvantage compared to remote work. It is more costly in the long term. It is a less attractive lifestyle. Tools are getting better, more and more of the competition is learning remote skills. In the end, the best creatives will work remote only, so companies will be even more compelled to have a remote culture.
When the majority will finally follow this logic I cannot predict, for now after five years, I still feel like an innovator preaching to the early adopters. But when the wave happens, I’ll be riding it very comfortably. Would you like to be there with me?